Conviction (2010): United States – directed by Tony Goldwyn

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some violent and bloody images, strong language, mature themes

Without star turns by Sam Rockwell and Hillary Swank, Conviction wouldn’t be nearly as powerful.  A prime example of a concept and story greater than its execution on celluloid, Conviction tells the story of Betty Anne Waters.  Her remarkable true story took her on an 18 year quest to become a lawyer and fight for her brother’s release on a murder conviction.

The story is told linearly, but with varying flashbacks highlighting important aspects of the relationship between Betty Anne (Swank) and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell).  They grew up in trailer parks and foster care, white trash in eastern Massachusetts.  They got in trouble together, stealing candy and breaking into old people’s homes.  Kenny took most of the heat, and by the time he was a young adult he was on a first-name basis with the entire police force.  But then, in 1980 in the town of Ayer, a bloody shack was discovered with a dead body inside.  The usual suspect was rounded up, and soon all the evidence gathered by local law-woman Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) points towards Kenny’s guilt.

Meanwhile Betty Anne gets married and starts her own life.  But her relationship is with Kenny is so strong that when he is arrested and charged with murder, she is consumed with doing everything in her power to get him out.  With a conviction and an overturned appeal, she has no options left but to embark on an enormous journey to free Kenny.  First she must finally pass the GED, then complete an undergraduate degree, and finally finish law school and pass the bar.  A disintegrating marriage eventually leaves her with two boys to raise and support, in addition to her academic pursuits and the upkeep of Kenny’s mood in jail.

Betty Anne makes one friend in law school, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), who proves essential to keeping Betty Anne’s moral high.  About a dozen years after the crime they realize that DNA testing has become a viable possibility, and they enlist the help of an influential justice lawyer, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher).  Together the trio re-investigates the case, talking to old witnesses (including Juliette Lewis as Roseanna Perry, a character who could well be her Natural Born Killers character if she lived a couple dozen more years) and uncovering old evidence.

The story is incredible, and the strength of Betty Anne’s convictions are admirable.  She sacrifices a great deal (including a marriage) in her quest to free her brother.  The film is rather sneaky concerning Kenny’s guilt or innocence (the trailers are even more purposely misleading), and at times feels a bit overly manipulative.  Aside from the story, there are a number of other admirable elements in the film.  The acting is strong, particularly from Swank and Rockwell.  Rockwell (impressive as essentially the sole actor in Moon [review here]) is particularly chameleon-like, blending in as Kenny through the years he spends in jail.  Later on, as a graying and bearded convict he is almost unrecognizable.  The supporting cast is likewise gritty and realistic, though the Massachusetts accents occasionally ring false.  Lewis is a standout as the disturbed witness/lover, and isn’t afraid to appear dreadfully unattractive.

The film is nicely shot, with a number of slow lingering shots that manage to capture some of the intense emotions of the main characters.  Unfortunately, the movie has a number of problems that keep it from achieving greatness.  The first hour or so is rather lifeless.  Part of the reason for this is that its already clear that Kenny is in jail, and Betty Anne’s course is already plotted.  There’s little suspense in this, as it is based on historical fact.  The only way the filmmakers were able to inject tension is to continually bring into question Kenny’s innocence.  Betty Anne consistently takes it for granted, despite no assurances from Kenny that he didn’t do it, but the audience is never so sure.  Eventually the film moves into investigative crime drama mode, as the three lawyers hunt down additional evidence of Kenny’s innocence.  This section is more interesting than the previous hour.  However, it is the final thirty minute sequence that does the most to redeem the film.  A poignant conclusion involving Kenny’s estranged daughter (Ari Graynor) provides a satisfying emotional punch that doesn’t feel forced.

The most interesting aspect of the story comes from Betty Anne’s unconditional love for Kenny.  He is a rogue, a troublemaker, and an all-around bad guy.  He rarely does anything to redeem himself, and remains a bad egg till the end.  But Betty Anne never questions her motives or his worthiness, and she perfectly exhibits mercy and grace, never punishing him for what he’s done, and giving him more than he deserves.  The story of her perseverance, blind determination, and unquestioning forgiveness makes the film worthwhile, in spite of some technical and scripting issues.

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